Getting Out of Overwhelm

Do you ever feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done?

Time is an intriguing concept.  One day it’ll seem to fly by and the next it’ll drag.  There will be times you muddle through something for hours with nothing to show for it, and others where you experience a sudden burst of efficiency and vigor that allows you to do in a small amount of time what may have previously taken hours or even days.   What is the differentiator?  Wouldn’t it be great if there was a lever you could turn inside yourself to propel you into that productive zone?

Sometimes I would be happy with a lever to get me out of the zone that has me spinning from one thing to the next without making much progress on anything.  I was in one of those states not too long ago, and curious by nature I began to pay attention and ask some questions.  Often I find my surroundings have a way of reflecting my state of mind.  And it wasn’t long before my computer became the perfect mirror.

I’d had the same laptop for almost five years.  Though it was wonderful in the beginning, it was becoming nonresponsive and sluggish.  Several times a day something I was working on would freeze up, and I found myself going through all kinds of gyrations to get the darn thing up and going again.  I convinced myself I could make everything work on my own in an effort to avoid what I imagined would be an intolerable delay. But alas, I ended up experiencing the very holdups and disruptions I feared anyway, as I ended up spending more time waiting for the computer to respond than I did actually working.

The irony that I coach people to do the very thing I was resisting (delegate, trust, let go of having to control everything, etc.) was not lost on me.  When I finally realized the futility of my actions, I reached out and got help.  And yes, it did require a couple of days interruption in my business - a new computer, and an investment in the time of someone far more knowledgeable than me.  But I have to say it was worth every minute and every penny - and I should have done it long before I did.

Once I had a computer that actually worked, I literally doubled - maybe tripled my productivity.  And it got me thinking.  Maybe it is not more time in the day that we need, but rather energy and clarity that will allow us to use the time we already have more wisely.  Computers are not the only things that become sluggish unresponsive.  I think we all occasionally find ourselves in unproductive states for very similar reasons to those which led to my computer predicament.  It’s been said most people use less than ten percent of their brains.  My guess is we only operate at a small fraction of the level of efficiency and effectiveness we are capable of as well.

“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its shortness.” ~ Jean de La Brugsre

My computer ordeal revealed shocking similarities in the ways we were both functioning that led me to identify strategies for optimizing my own productivity.  The common denominator between my computer and me was a state of overwhelm - a largely self imposed condition that can become quite incapacitating.  Overwhelm is most likely to occur when  (1) we allow little things to slowly accumulate, (2) we try to do too many things at once, or (3) we bite off more than we can chew.  Fortunately, there are tactics we can employ that will help us to minimize the time we spend in this state and eventually learn to stay out of it altogether.

Allowing small things to gradually pile up is often a product of indecision and fear.

I noticed that when I wasn’t sure what to do with an email, I let it sit in my inbox.  Even my deleted file was large because I was often afraid to permanently delete things.  Over time, this really hurt my computer.  And I think the same thing is true when we sit on things instead of processing them.  Behind my indecision was fear - fear that I would mess up, do something I would later regret, or make more work for myself (which ended up happening anyway).  What we need to realize is that not deciding is in fact a decision in itself - and rarely one that serves us well unless we make it with awareness and intent.

To bust through this barrier, we need to be clear about our highest priorities and stay focused on them.  Without this indicator, everything seems important and even urgent.  With it, we can better distinguish what requires action from what can be delayed, delegated or even deleted or denied. When we don’t determine what category something belongs in, our brains keep trying to process everything in much the same way that a computer runs programs in the background.  This drains our mental clarity and depletes energy that could be much more strategically utilized.

“That which matters most should never be at the mercy of that which matters least.” ~ Goethe

Trying to do too many things at once is a trap that we can easily become sucked into.  Though “multitasking” has become quite en vogue lately, I believe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.   While it’s a good idea to read or write something while you are waiting for something, trying to do that while you are carrying on a conversation or attempting anything that requires even a smidgeon of brain power will likely not play out well.  Running too many programs at once is as problematic for ourselves as it is for our computers - ultimately screens freeze up, eyes glaze over, and lethargy sets in.  When we divide our focus across too many things, nothing really gets the attention it needs or deserves.  As a result, mistakes (sometimes costly ones) will be made.

Sidestepping this trap requires that we identify what merits our attention in any moment and give ourselves completely to that particular task.  Manufacturing plants batch similar jobs to gain efficiencies and reduce waste.  Likewise, focusing our efforts on related tasks allows us to increase momentum and enter a zone of greater creativity and efficiency.  Even minimizing the appearance of distracting things can increase your clarity and focus.  Try clearing your desk of everything other than what is absolutely essential to the task you’re undertaking and see what it will do for your concentration and efficiency.

Biting off more than we can chew can happen when we become so determined to accomplish a major project that we approach it in its entirety, rather than breaking it into smaller, more manageable steps.  This is like trying to install a program on your computer that requires more disk space than you have available.  It leaves us feeling as though we are chipping away at Mt. Everest with an ice pick and leads us to doubt that we’ll ever actually accomplish our most precious goals.  In this state, we are susceptible a myriad of unproductive behaviors that sabotage our success and even our health.  As a result, we may find ourselves running in circles without making any progress.   

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.  The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” ~ Mark Twain

Getting unstuck and moving forward requires that we simplify and focus on what’s most important.  Rather than attempting to conquer the whole mountain, we can specify milestones and break our journeys into smaller ventures that will maximize our endurance and allow ourselves to recharge our batteries along the way.   As productivity guru David Allen writes in his bestselling book, Getting Things Done, asking “What is the next action?” can free the psychic log jam that is created when you consider the enormity of any given project or task.  He writes “without a next action, there remains a potentially infinite gap between current reality and what you need to do.” Sustaining forward momentum and maximizing your energy level also requires that you take care of your body and mind by exercising regularly, eating healthy food, and allowing yourself some downtime every once in awhile.

Sometimes, as with the case of my computer, the best thing you can do is reach out for help.  Partnering with people who have skills and experience you do not can allow you to navigate your challenges much more quickly and painlessly.  And engaging the support of a friend, colleague or coach can help you see yourself and your challenges a bit more objectively and find the answers you need to get back on track.

How much more productive and effective could you be?

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” ~ Charles Darwin

Image credit: khrawlings

About Diane Bolden

Diane Bolden is passionate about helping people actualize their brilliance in a way that inspires others to do the same. In addition to being the author of The Pinocchio Principle ~ Becoming the Leader You Were Born to Be, Diane is an executive coach, speaker, yoga lover and mother of three. Join Diane On the Road to Real, visit her Synchronistically Speaking blog, follow her on Twitter;, or visit her YouTube channel for more.